and AJ Tibando
Kanika: It’s hard to imagine that it’s been three years since Social Journal was born.
What initially started as a blog to share ideas and stories grew into something much much greater.
Looking back, the first year can be generalized as dipping our toes in the water: testing out our ideas, building our initial team, establishing a support network, and releasing our closed Beta for our community to sample. As our experimenting began generating lots of positive feedback, we felt comfortable enough in our second year to jump into the deep end of the swimming pool.
It started by us launching our open Beta in a big way at the SociaLIGHT conference and within a few months, we were ready to take SoJo out of Beta and trust that our community would help build it out along the way. SoJo’s team of dedicated volunteers came together and a real organization started to take shape.
If Year One was about dipping our toes in the water and Year Two about jumping into the deep end, it’s fair to say this past year was like getting thrown into the ocean with the sharks, rough waters, and no safety net.
For starters, the year kicked off with a major burnout and a lot of frustration. I finally admitted that I was stretched too thin and that it was no longer sustainable or realistic for SoJo to be run solely with part-time unpaid volunteers. With momentum picking up, we needed a dedicated full-time team of paid staff to carry us through our next phase of development.
So my top priority became fundraising. To be very blunt (and to keep with the water metaphors), fundraising for an early-stage social innovation start-up was like swimming upstream with jellyfish. Despite all your effort, you feel like you’re making no progress and getting stung at almost every conversation. It was incredibly exhausting and frustrating trying to convince people to listen to a message that they weren’t ready or interested in hearing and to preserve the little sanity and energy I had left, in the best interest of SoJo, by the end of 2012 I vowed to stop fighting.
Everyone on board SoJo believed that we were on the cusp of something big with our ideas. If the ecosystem within which we operated in wasn’t able to see or ready to support it, then we would just have to trust in ourselves and look for support elsewhere.
Our rockstar team also had some inevitable changes, with team members transitioning out and moving on to other opportunities. We took some risks by hiring high school co-op students, and other volunteers chose to come on board full-time, and we eventually began to introduce hierarchy into the organization.
Despite the mountain of setbacks, some pretty awesome stuff happened in the first six months of SoJo’s third year (Sep-Jan 2012), which is what really kept us going. We were featured in Forbes.com and other international press; the subject of an Ivey Business School case; invited to speak almost every week in a different city throughout Canada and the north-eastern United States to tell our story; and invited to apply for the Ontario Trillium Future Fund.
Then, with no warning, the storm came in. In early 2013, a brain injury forced me to take a step back and focus on my health, and ultimately let go entirely of contact with SoJo. I had to temporarily sever all connections with SoJo and leave the team on their own – without my guidance or leadership – in order to nurse myself back to health. And it was uncertain when I would be able to return (this blog post is the first since the departure).
Despite SoJo’s ability to weather previous storms, my sudden departure was unlike anything SoJo had experienced - which caused a lot of anxiety amongst all of us. But did we ever show that storm who’s boss. Within a few days of my injury, AJ (a volunteer at the time) had the courage to quit her job and took a leap of faith to join SoJo full-time - only a few weeks before her wedding - and take charge of the ship.
AJ: I started 2013 working as a Senior Advisor, Social Policy for the Minister of Community and Social Services. While that was where I started the year, I knew I wasn’t going to be there for much longer. I had been volunteering with SoJo for about 8 months and was itching to leave the world of government and politics for an experience in the start-up community. Kanika and I had bonded during my time at SoJo as we quickly grew to see each other as partners, and I knew that the two of us working together at SoJo full-time would be close to unstoppable.
When Kanika got injured, I was already making preparations to leave my job for SoJo – the injury just put it all into hyperdrive. And I was looking forward to transitioning between worlds and easing into the new role, which of course never happened. What did happen was that on Friday I was a volunteer and on Monday found myself in the role of Acting CEO.
To say the first few weeks were rough would be the understatement of the century. Kanika is not a “sit still” kind of person; and she had a ton of meetings, speeches, events and other commitments lined up, as well as grant applications and partnerships in the works. We have a large team of volunteers, with new members that were about to join, and they needed to be reassured that things would carry on. On day one, my ‘crisis management’ skills were put to the test, as I had to pick up the pieces on all of her commitments and find a way to follow through on them, all without having the luxury to speak with her for context or guidance.
This pushed me way outside of my comfort zone. For example, I had never given a speech before and found myself within a few weeks on stage in the front of a packed room, standing in for her. Sure we could have cancelled her commitments – I’m sure organizers would have been more than understanding – but these were good opportunities for SoJo and I knew Kanika would never want SoJo to miss out on something just because she wasn’t there to do it.
As the weeks passed and turned into months, things settled down into a weird ‘new normal’ and the team found its stride. The injury brought us all together and connected us as a team, as we all had to really rely on each other to get things done. And we had some great milestones that helped us along, including our first investment – a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Future Fund allowing SoJo to finally have a team of full-time paid staff – and a handful of exciting new partners, eager to support us.
Now that September is almost over, it definitely feels like SoJo has weathered the storm, and come out that much stronger for it. We’ve navigated more uncertainty and ambiguity over the past 8 months than most companies experience over their entire existence. And through it we’ve proven that our team is adaptable, resilient and filled with grit and determination – the things no start-up bootcamp will ever be able to teach.
Kanika and AJ: As we begin to enter into our 4th year, we have the humility to anticipate the inevitable twists and turns, as well as pleasant surprises in our ongoing journey of being the premier source of support and guidance for individuals passionate about making the world a better place. The battle scars acquired over the past year has also given us a fearlessness that we can and will take on anything that gets in our way to achieving our vision.
As Kanika’s health starts to improve, she’s thrilled to get back involved with SoJo; however, this time in a very different capacity, which will surely be an interesting experience for all of us on the team.
All great things take time.
After taking stock of the past 12 months – and last 3 years - it’s clear that our goals are unchanged and our plans are as ambitious as before. Now with greater clarity on the paths to execution and an organization that’s stronger than ever, the only thing that we can say with certainty about the next 12 months is this: you’ll want a front row seat to watch everything that we’re about to accomplish.